Refugee Tales

Corn Fields

Published by: Hattie Callery

Published on: 4 Jul, 2020

In order for us to foster empathy, understanding, and a deeper connection to the human experience of migrants and refugees, we need to recognise the profound significance of listening to their tales. 

Being a refugee must be one of the most challenging situations any one can face. ‘a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster’. There are organisations and movements in the UK who want to help and who are working to make sure that more of us empathise with what it means. In this blog, we talk about an important initiative: Refugee Tales.(

Refugee Tales is rooted in the work of the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and this year takes place between 3rd – 5th July. They have published chronicles of stories from migrants and hold monthly walks to raise money for people who have been detained in immigration detention centres They work with famous and high profile authors in telling these stories. This year you can do online walks with them.

Their patron, Ali Smith, a well known playwright and novelist wrote:

Supporting people held in immigration detention

“Imagine if every city, if every country, greeted refugees with signs which said in many languages the word welcome, and the words you are safe, like Vienna did last summer. We will tell it like it is, and we will work towards the better imagined.”

Ali Smith first worked with Refugee Tales when she wrote a story for their first ever publication of stories, called ‘The Detainees’ Tales’. She met with a man from Ghana who, while attempting to flee slavery and violence, was human trafficked to the UK and then arrested by the Home Office: he could be sent back to Ghana at any point.

Her writing about his story and her own visit to a detainee centre is brutally simple and honest. Perhaps the most heart-breaking point in the man’s story is when, having arrived in Luton after escaping a life of slavery, he is told that the people who brought him to the UK have spent vast sums of money and now he must pay it back by working for free. Living and working in a warehouse that he still believes is in London, he sorts bags and shoes to be sent to retail, cleans microwaves and fridges for 18 hours a day every day, for no pay.

He befriends people through his local church, who tell him to call the Home Office. He calls, they come, they arrest him. He is taken to a detention centre, which he describes as being worse than prison. There are windows, but they have bars and very little light and no air comes through them. What is the point of windows without light or air, he asks?

Supporting people held in immigration detention

Ali’s story then switches to her own visit to a detention centre. She is most struck by the complete lack of mental health services available, despite the fact that surely nearly everyone there will suffer from some form of post traumatic stress disorder – nobody leaves home for no reason.

At the detention centre, she meets a Vietnamese man who came to the UK hidden in the back of a lorry; a horrifying reminder of the 39 refugees who were found dead in a van in Essex 2019. He tells Ali: “People don’t know about what it’s like to be a detainee. They think it’s like what the government tells them. They don’t know. You have to tell them.”

And that is what Refugee Tales does, with enormous power – it tells them.

TogetherintheUK would like to ask – can we be more like Vienna as described by Ali Smith? Can we become a country who truly welcomes people and supports them to integrate into society? How can we help people to do this?

TogetheirintheUK share the stories of everyday life, the challenges and the solutions.. We don’t work through high profile authors but through the voice of migrants themselves. Both have a place.

Through sharing migrants stories, we want to tell our readers how it is. But we also want to imagine a better future. I if everybody had a copy of Refugee Tales, and if we keep on sharing stories, perhaps we could be more empathetic to each other.

To find out more about the work of Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, listen to this podcast with one of the Trustees:

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